Fermentation as Transmaterial Alchemy

An Interview with Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin

“It is, in essence, magic. It radically shifts what it means to be a self and disrupts our ideas of individualism and biological essentialism.”


Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin explores the porousness of bodily boundaries and the ceaseless movement of living processes, like fermentation, echoing the history of colonialism. Shin is interested in entangling the history of conquest and the literal digestion of material – smells, microbes, and food – into a new system of relations that emerge from a complicated history of entanglement. Her recent and forthcoming exhibitions include ones at Jeju Biennale, Wave Hill, Recess, DOOSAN Gallery, Lewis Center for the Arts, Cuchifritos Gallery, Knockdown Center, among others. Shin is a 2020 Van Lier Fellow at Wave Hill and 2019 Visiting Artist Fellow at UrbanGlass. Select commissions include 2019 Visiting Artist for Col(LAB), Program in American Studies at Princeton University.


Installation view: Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin: Microbial Speculation of Our Gut Feelings, 2019, Recess, Brooklyn. Courtesy the artist and Recess.

We are very intrigued by your approaches to materiality, for instance, your use of fermentation as a form of transformation and alchemy. How did you start your journey of exploring fermentation?

I am interested in fermentation as a shared and transmaterial practice that embodies processes of bioavailability, preservation, transformation, and witchcraft. Ferments are widely available: lactic acid bacteria (LAB) is in every fermented food like yogurt, kimchi, wine, and cheese and lives within our own mucosal surfaces such as the gastric, urinary, and genital systems. A collective, intergenerational, and indigenous practice, fermentation brings together everyone involved - humans, skin microbes, bacteria, material substrates, energy, time, and its dynamic forces as its main ingredients. It is, in essence, magic. It radically shifts what it means to be a self and disrupts our ideas of individualism and biological essentialism.
Shortly after I immigrated to the West, I developed a digestive illness and my mom, a pharmacist and a Taoist practitioner at the time, prepared kimchi, fermented roots, and herbal elixirs. I have grown to cultivate this sort of gut feeling and learned to crave the sour, fermenting radish of kimchi. I imagine my gastric lining soaking up all the LAB bacteria, hosting the communities that live within my body, in a sort of mitosis, queer re-birthing. This is when I started to understand the vitalism of materials. Things and matter aren’t dormant; they enliven, intoxicate, harm, and heal you based on the alchemic combination of material and host.

We would love to know more about your recent installation at Recess. It seems that the performativity of material plays an important part in this piece. However, the gradual material transformation through growth and fermentation could be challenging considering the timescale and subtlety of the visible changes. What discoveries did you make in the process of translating materials into a collective experience? Was it challenging to communicate your concepts to the audience?

Recess was an incredible space and this project would have only come to manifest in their radical open, public format. I was able to be in the space 24/7 meaning when seeds and sprouts were germinating, there was hidden, invisible labor on all fronts: the bacterial ferments inoculating and synthesizing with the soil microbiome, and myself facilitating these bacterial communities, watering, lighting, and taking care of their growth. It was highly performative: I watered my plants every other day, fermented lactic acid bacteria weekly, offered fermented drinks to the public, and scheduled the plants so they mimic my schedule, 15 hours of sun and activity, 9 hours of dark and dormancy.
My project responded to a recent study published at the scientific journal Cell that showed immigrants go through a process of gut colonization immediately after arriving in the U.S., which makes them incredibly vulnerable to developing metabolic diseases. The gut microbe that immigrants are losing was called Prevotella, responsible for the digestion and breakdown of complex fibers. In resisting this singular narrative that Westernization is inevitable and there is no viable future for non-Western bodies, I fermented lactic acid bacteria (LAB) in the space. LAB remedies gastrointestinal and rhizospheric, soil imbalance. All subjects in the space, plants and humans, sipped on this LAB probiotic tea, blurring, queering, healing, toxicating, fortifying, and converging together with this bacteria. Our gastrointestinal tract and the soil became the same substrate, one big organ. At the end of Recess, harvested plants were foraged together for a final dinner program organized by Spiral Theory Test Kitchen; it was a major collaboration on all fronts.
How do we contend with a study that asks us to imagine processes of gut colonization on a quantum, microbial, scalar level? How does this in turn, shift our understanding of animacy of the microbial that is invisible to the human eye but offers the very possibilities of our vibrant animation? I am interested in speaking, listening, exercising, and training our gut feelings to slow time to a more distributive agency that eludes us if we seek a singular understanding of “human”, “intelligence,” and “progress”. I want to understand the vitality and capacity of living things in their own forces, propensities, inclinations, and sensibilities. My performance wasn’t about a quest for domination or control over the wild or viewing plants as raw material available for primitive accumulation. In fact, there was the very possibility that nothing would grow inside the space. Like all collaboration, I had to trust myself and the other: trust that things would grow and once consumed, the plants would inhabit our stomach and we absorb their waste in symbiotic, mutual dependency.

You have cultivated dynamic partnership with various groups - from scientists, scholars, researchers, performers and artists, to non-human agents such as lactic acid bacteria. How do you see your role in these collaborations? What do you look for in a collaborator and what is your strategy or reaching out?

Collaboration is important to me - there’s just limited knowledge for what I know. I collaborate because like bacteria, I depend on other communities for us to converge, contaminate, and germinate together. Many of my collaborators are my friends, I have a lot of unconditional love for them. I love the moment when synthesizing ideas,  we reimagine new paradigmatic shifts of our worlds - the feeling that anything is possible together. I think of collaboration as lightning: flashes of potential, testing out new unimaginable paths, hints of possible lines of connection. I usually see these synaptic signals after I ask my collaborators: “what’s your vision of the future?”

The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis once again reminds us that we have never been individuals, and we all live in an entangled, ecological web of connections. Maybe it is the time to rethink “us” as collective beings. As you talked about “common survival, interspecies symbiosis, and care”, what do you think we can learn from our microbial model?  

I am reminded again and again that like all species, we are fragile and porous; we are not poreless and machinic. Where does one individual begin and end - are we really that self-contained as we are told to believe? A host to and hosted by trillions of bacteria, we depend on the other for our existence. We need them for our immunity, we need them to digest food, we need them to defecate, we need them to nourish, to harvest, to cultivate; the very community we seek to annihilate because of fears of contamination and otherness. But not all symbiosis is mutually beneficial and COVID-19 is an instance where this is very true. I read that the leading cause of endangerment and mass extinction of the species on the planet is due to zoonotic diseases, ones that jump from animal to human, bred and spread by modern agriculture, monoculturalism, man-made pollution, and industrialization - fueling this is greed, human expansionism, and racial capitalism. Humans aren’t the only ones in peril, we all are. I think it’s time to rethink the paradigm of the “other”. The visible world around us including the mountains, rocks, trees, and stars make up only 4 percent of the total matter and energy content of the universe. The rest of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy. We live in an ever-porous, imaginative world, sharing 96 percent of our boundaries with the galaxy. We share so much in common; we are of the same thingness. We are literally, bound together, on the same boat. There is no other; it’s us, rotating, recycling, sharing, ingesting the same microbial community. We are just nodes of the same network of ever-changing exchanges of bacteria, fungi, toxins, gases, and phages.